- United Airlines violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by refusing to modify its addiction treatment program to accommodate the beliefs of a Buddhist pilot, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleged in a lawsuit (EEOC v. United Airlines Inc., No. 20-cv-9110 (D.N.J. July 20, 2020)).
- The pilot was diagnosed with alcohol dependency and lost the Federal Aviation Administration medical certificate needed for his job, EEOC said. United operates a substance abuse program for its pilots that provides treatment and sponsors them to obtain new medical certificates, according to the Commission. One of the requirements of United's program is that pilots regularly attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The pilot objected to the religious content of AA and preferred to attend a Buddhism-based peer support group. Because United refused to accommodate him, the pilot was unable to obtain a new medical certificate permitting him to fly again.
- Describing the requested accommodation as a "modest change," EEOC New York Regional Attorney Jeffrey Burstein said in the statement announcing the lawsuit that "employers have the affirmative obligation to modify their policies to accommodate employees' religious beliefs." A United spokesperson said via email that the company is unable to comment on pending legislation.
Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on religion — as well as a series of other protected classes — and requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs unless doing so would pose an undue hardship for the employer, according EEOC's guidance on religious discrimination.
"An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work," EEOC said in its guidance.
Although the "undue hardship" standard sets a high bar for employers, some have successfully made that argument. Walmart prevailed in a case earlier this year involving a manager's request for Saturdays off. The nationwide retailer showed that the request would leave the store without a manager on Saturdays. In another case, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that a nuclear power plant worker was not entitled to Saturdays off as an accommodation; the employer showed that it would have had to change its scheduling and assignment procedures for an already demanding job, hire an additional employee and risk its staffing contract with the power plant.
While common religious accommodations can include an employee who needs a schedule change to attend church services or breaks that permit daily prayers at prescribed times, the law doesn't require that employers grant a worker's preferred accommodation. However, employers are expected to engage in an interactive, good-faith process to determine worker accommodations. This makes compliance training a good idea, experts say, recommending that HR ensure that managers are trained to handle requests and to listen for clues that suggest a need for accommodation even if there is no formal request.